The Principal Problem

Don't get me wrong, I love Principal dancers - one of my favorites - Carrie Imler in Apollo (Photo: Angela Sterling)
I was making over $60,000 a year, dancing world-famous ballets with a world-class orchestra, and surrounded by exceptional dancers most of my waking hours. Why oh why would I ever pack my bags and leave the Pacific Northwest Ballet? I am not posting this to dwell on regrets from my past. In fact, I don't regret leaving Seattle at all. But what led me to feel stagnant and unhappy, eventually seeking to leave this life? It was highly unlikely that I was ever going to be promoted beyond the senior Corps de Ballet position that I held, even though I often performed principal and soloist roles.  And while this wasn't a bad position to be in, it isn't uncommon for the ballet world to overlook dancers that are in the same position.

It is nearly every ballet student's dream to join one of the big, prestigious companies in the country. Very few get the opportunity to experience such a thing. Once a dancer joins one of these companies, their trajectory either speeds forward, as is common to big-company-bound dancers during their training years, or slows down fiercely. This meteoric rise only happens to about 5% of the dancers that enter a large company, if that. If you aren't one of those dancers that we have all heard glamorized stories about, then you are likely to experience a slow crawl to the top or a slow realization that there will eventually be a ceiling.

Even dancers that are chosen by an artistic director to have a limited trajectory can enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, periodic plum roles, and less pressure than those at the top. What in this could be so bad that a dancer feels the need to jump ship? Aside from limited chances to gain experience in this short career, it is what I call the "Principal Problem" that causes lower ranked dancers to move on from cushy company positions. And in no way do I say this to defame any dancers at this rank. I have the utmost respect for Principals and call many my friends. In fact, it has nothing to do with Principal dancers and everything to do with people's perception of artists who are not top ranked.

Principal dancers are the face of dance organizations. They perform leading roles that the audience falls in love with, their faces are all over marketing materials, and they are most likely to share their story while being interviewed for press. Why wouldn't a dancer want to hold this position? When a company wants to woo new donors, it isn't uncommon to have a principal dancer around to sweeten the pot. Most likely, these dancers have earned their positions, and, sometimes, they fall upon luck and timing to push forth. Either way, their status earns them public accolades and respect. All of a sudden, distant audiences, directors, coaches, teachers, administrators, and board members unrelated to the organization begin to think that these superhuman dancers have other marketable super powers. From there on out, as is often said, "it is all in the name."

Where am I going with this? Let's start here. Looking back at the last ten or so years, how many Principal dancers with the top 6 U.S. companies have been hired as Artistic Directors to take over medium to large sized ballet companies?

Vladimir Malakhov - Staatsballett Berlin - former Principal ABT
Nikolaj Hubbe - Royal Danish Ballet - former Principal NYCB
Peter Boal - Pacific Northwest Ballet - former Principal NYCB
Ethan Stiefel - Royal New Zealand Ballet - former Principal ABT
Ashley Wheater - Joffrey Ballet - former Principal SFB (among others)
Christopher Stowell - former Oregon Ballet Theatre - former Principal SFB
Angel Corella - Corella/Barcelona Ballet - former Principal ABT
Gil Boggs - Colorado Ballet - former Principal ABT
Benjamin Millipied - Paris Opera Ballet - former Principal NYCB
Jose Manuel Carreno - Ballet San Jose - former Principal ABT
Mikko Nissinen - Boston Ballet - former Principal SFB (among others)

Take a peek at this short list of newer artistic directors and it is clear to see that many recent company appointments are male and former principal dancers with American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, or San Francisco Ballet. Looking beyond this list to most of the other ballet companies across the U.S., it is clear to see that most directors were Principal dancers with these companies as well (a handful were leading old-school Joffrey dancers, but the company is unranked). Who is missing from this list? Female principal dancers and lesser ranked dancers. Let's look into this.

The only female directors of mid to large sized U.S. ballet companies are Lourdes Lopez of Miami City Ballet (former Principal NYCB), Victoria Morgan of Cincinnati Ballet (former Principal SFB), Patricia Barker of Grand Rapids Ballet (former Principal PNB), and Colleen Neary who is co-director of Los Angeles Ballet (former Principal PNB). It is almost impossible to find any director of a company that has only held the rank of Soloist or Corps de Ballet with one of the top six companies, let alone smaller sized companies. Stanton Welch of Houston Ballet and, recently hired, Edwaard Liang of Ballet Met are among the only state-side directors that didn't reach the rank of Principal in their respective companies (both obtaining the rank of Soloist). They were likely scouted for their choreographic achievements beyond their rank. There are a few other female and non-former principal dancers that are Artistic Directors across the country, but most are not in what I would consider a medium to large sized company.

Looking at this information, it would appear that it is practically impossible to become an Artistic Director without a large company, Principal credential attached to your name. Beyond that, if you look at company artistic staff or directors of respected schools with professional training programs, a majority of these people were upper ranked (soloist or principal) dancers with major companies.

This is where this subject can get touchy. Does the rank of principal dancer automatically assume that this person will make a great director? Although one achieves this status, does it mean that they must be a fantastic teacher? Do public accolades for a performance in a role automatically mean that a dancer will be a great vessel to continue the life of a work? No. But it seems to be quite accurate that Principal dancers have the greatest number of options to continue in the professional dance world beyond their performing careers, solely on their name.

Another favorite Principal, Maria Chapman - Chair of Second Stage
Is this right or fair? It is impossible to give a yes or no answer to this question, as it is purely opinion. As I noticed during my time taking college courses through PNB's Second Stage program, a greater number of students taking these classes were lower ranked dancers. I took a handful of business and marketing courses on my path to getting my AA degree from Seattle Central Community College. More often than not, dancers with a faster career trajectory have great facility and natural ability. I have seen a handful of these dancers who don't have to think about certain steps because they come so naturally. Principal dancers don't usually spend as much time communicating within a corps of dancers; discussing unison, helping others pick up choreography, or learning how to stand up in a
community atmosphere without appearing to be an asshole. Having post-secondary education, exploring how to properly execute a step that doesn't initially work on one's own body, and learning how to communicate are integral skills in being successful at these hard-to-get dance careers. It may be true that a lower ranked dancer has refined these skills, yet a Principal is more likely to be singled out as a candidate with these qualities.

All of the above leads me to believe that hiring committees and administrations are likely falling in love with the future leaders of the dance world for their dancing and names prior to evaluating their skill set. For this reason alone, it is no wonder that lower ranked dancers start to get antsy when they feel that their progress is being stunted by one director with one opinion. Effectually, these search committees are hoping that these Principal dancers naturally have the tools to run a company or are assuming that they can hone their skills at lightening speed.  Lower ranked dancers have been switching companies for years, trying to find a place that will raise their profile, gain them the greatest experience, and potentially launch a renowned career that gives them a name.

There has been buzz in recent press about leading dancers, even, having less commitment to old-style company life. In my opinion, it is becoming especially hard for dancers to make a name for themselves staying in one place and they recognize this. Directors tend to fall in love with one dancer, a la Balanchine and Farrell, and all of the other dancers become secondary. Due to this, leading dancers are jumping ship to find the best way to gain the greatest reputation in a short five to twenty years. If this is achieved, a dancer can appropriately have a dance career, performance and non-performance, that lasts as long as any regular non-dance career.

While most dancers start training at a young age, the actual length of their time connected to dance can be short lived. In the end, it is up to each individual dancer to take their career into their own hands. If a dancer needs to move elsewhere to achieve the alias "Principal Dancer," many, like me, will leave behind somewhat gratifying and comfortable positions in companies. Aside from the desire to perform great roles and gain as much experience as possible in such a short career, this is the principal reason that I believe dancers burn out and have less commitment to companies today than ever.

Do you agree with this view? Share your opinion in the comments section.


  1. I had to comment on this, despite the age of the post. I was a professional dancer in an acclaimed company (we have mutual friends, go figure), and I often think about the male principal/director trajectory. I'm a woman and quit ballet mid-career. I'm just finishing an undergrad degree currently.
    I think men who attain any type of prestige in dance, like that of principal, hang on as long as they can because they kind of have to. If they somehow morph into being a director, it's like the jackpot - a way to maintain a continuous level of status in comparison to men of a similar age.
    I know very few men who have retrained after retiring, whereas it's not rare for women to slog it out in introductory classes with students vastly younger than them.
    It's societal. When a man reaches 40 or so, he is in the prime working/earning years of his life (in things like law, medicine, finance, etc.), and if a male dancer retires at 40, he is suddenly with nothing. He won't be able to get into the male dominated work world without years of education, and time spent "working his way up".

    Women, who almost never have the advantage anywhere, might have it here because women are expected to take time away for children at various points in the lifespan. So, women aren't expected to achieve as much in the work force, whereas the ideal worker is based on being a man.

    Can you imagine any of the principal males you know writing the pointless essays and jumping the hoops you have to in university, just to get an entry level job? Could you see Stiefel giving a meaningless powerpoint, just to get the credit? Is Millepied going to attend Intro to Psych on the road to something great? No. I mean, I do know some male dancers (not principals) who have gone back to school to become fantastic things, like Drs, but almost all the principal males I know have become directors in some way, or ballet masters.

    It is bizarre to me that there is always a position waiting to be created to subsume a man into the artistic fold. What also blows my mind is that these are people with basically a Grade 12 education, if that, :) It's very hard to make it outside of the ballet world with a grade 12 education, and as a man at age 40, it's almost inconceivable. So - best option (for these guys) is to hope to be tracked into being a director!!!!!! And, it's probably not the best for the dancers....
    Love your blog, always interesting.

  2. Also, the above can also apply to the few principal women that segue into directing, although women are usually let off the hook of prestige by bearing children. Fun stuff...

  3. Zip: Thanks so much for commenting. The dance world is small, so Im not surprised we have mutual connections. Also, it's not too late to comment since I actually reposted this on my social media after hearing about Silicon Valley Ballet folding.

    I love your perspective on this and I agree with most, if not all of it. It makes sense that a man (or anyone for that matter) of that age doesn't want to start from scratch. It's hard on one's ego to have all of the glory and then to have it all taken away. But I would hope that humility was also a quality sought after in new directors. In the end, if one is truly passionate about our art form, they would want what is best for it. And if that means getting education or going through an extensive training period (perhaps a year or two) to educate one on the other side (non-dancing) of a dance organization, so be it. Wouldn't it be amazing if companies had Artistic Director internship periods before they actually got promoted into the position.

    I was lucky enough that I had years working with admin, budget, donors, etc., as a union rep and the liaison to a young patrons donor development group. Plus running my own career over the past 4 years has taught me so much more. Additionally, as I said in this post, getting to know all aspects of a company as a dancer who played all types of roles in productions gave me a taste of how every aspect of the structure of a company works. I'm not saying that I deserve to be a director (and maybe ;-) I got 2nd place recently to lead a regional company), but with all of the experience I currently have, I still feel like I would need more education before fully taking on a role like this.

    Moving forward, I was really happy to see that Julie Kent is taking over Washington Ballet. But, again, I doubt she has the tools to be an effective leader walking in. She took the time to have 2 kids and didn't retire to take this role, so I hope she's been studying up.

    Alrighty, I've got more to say, but gotta get going. I love the things you contributed.